As parents, we want to make sure that our children are consuming content that is enriching, fun, and safe. With a plethora of media out there for kids, it can be overwhelming to vet content and filter out anything that can be harmful or just a waste of time.

In part 1 of our media and technology guide for families, we explained how and why to create a media use plan for your household to help everyone in the home manage their digital experiences. Now that you’ve established some guidelines for your family, let’s talk about some age-appropriate kids’ media and how to tell the good from the bad.

The best of TV for kids

Experts agree that letting your kids watch a limited amount of educational television can be harmless, or even beneficial to their cognitive development. However, plopping them down in front of the TV for hours at a time to watch whatever comes on can lead to behavioral problems, poor sleep and aggression.

Dad watching TV with kid

Despite the negative side-effects, a number of households leave the TV on for hours at a time. One 2017 study of children ages 0 to 8 found that 42 percent of those households said the TV is on “always” or “most of the time,” whether or not anyone is watching. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends turning off the TV when no one is watching, because the ongoing distraction of “background media” can have harmful mental impacts on the whole family, not just kids.

The good news is that, with the explosion of TV content creation prompted by streaming TV platforms and networks, TV can be more than just a digital pacifier in this day and age. There’s a lot of really great programming that families can access at a low cost through streaming services, through their regular TV package or on broadcast stations.

Recommended TV shows for little kids (3-5):

In this age group, there is no shortage of kids’ media out there with colorful characters that will delight your little one. But be sure to look for content with relatively slow-moving stories, positive messages and characters that model healthy relationships.

  • Science and nature: Octonauts; The Cat in the Hat Knows a Lot About That; Doc McStuffins
  • Problem-solving: Puffin Rock; Handy Manny; Curious George; Peg + Cat
  • Creative exploration: Little Einsteins; Creative Galaxy
  • Social awareness: Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood; Sesame Street

Recommended TV shows for big kids (6-9):

As kids grow into the elementary school years, they become more aware of themselves, their own learning and their place in a complex world. Find shows that help them understand how to navigate social interaction with children and adults, as well as build their understanding of both academic and creative concepts.

  • Science and inquiry: Ask the Storybots; MythBusters; Odd Squad; SciGirls; Wild Kratts
  • Creativity: Master Chef Jr.; World of Dance
  • Silly fun: We Bare Bears; Gortimer Gibbon’s Life on Normal Street
  • Social awareness: 100 Things to Do Before High School; The Next Step

pre-teen on phone with remote

Recommended TV shows for tweens and middle-schoolers (10-13):

The pre-teen years bring an explosion in brain power, self-awareness and emotional growth. Kids at this age need positive but realistic models to emulate, as well as healthy doses of both goofiness and drama. Try to find shows that satisfy a growing interest in action, romance or horror without going too far for their maturity level. As tweens turn into teens, they’ll also want to watch more shows that cater to a particular genre or interest, so you will likely want to create your own list by searching for personalized recommendations, such as “best teen anime shows” or “best teen shows about sports.”

  • Social awareness: Who Do You Think You Are?; Speechless; I Am Jazz
  • Silly fun: Adventure Time; Steven Universe; Doctor Who; Bravest Warriors
  • True-to-life drama: Andi Mack; Boy Meets World; Being You

How to choose high-quality apps for kids

More and more, parents are shifting their focus to helping their kids build key skills through their technology use, rather than focusing only on rigid recommendations on screen time. It’s a matter of considering quality over (or in addition to) quantity.

As you load up a device with apps for your kids, there are a number of key questions you can ask to help you pick and choose.

Are you giving your kids a well-rounded selection?

Try to cover a range of types of apps so that your child is getting varied digital experiences. Include a couple apps from each category, like this example selection for a preschooler:

  • Social development: Video chatting with a friend or family member (fewer people is best)
  • Creative/artistic: Color Ripple for Toddlers; Sago Mini Monsters
  • Physical: Toca Dance; Cosmic Kids Yoga
  • Literacy & phonics: Endless Wordplay; Chicktionary
  • Language learning: Duolingo
  • Science: Daisy the Dinosaur (basic coding & literacy); BrainPOP Jr.
  • Social studies: Google Earth
  • Other: PBS Kids Games
  • Reading: Amplify Reading; Epic! Reading

Note that e-readers (Nook, Kindle, etc.) have many children’s books that can read aloud to your children as well, though this should not take the place of you or a family member reading to them every day.

boy on couch with tablet

Is it appropriate for their age, maturity level and stage of development?

Look at age ratings whenever available, and read reviews by other parents. This can help you determine how relevant ratings are for your individual child. Consider not only the most obvious inappropriate content, such as graphic violence or sexually suggestive imagery. Sassy attitudes and immature arguing between characters can also have a negative effect on young children who imitate what they see. Shows or games that feature a lot of fast action or fighting are also more likely to lead to aggression or hyperactivity.

But it all depends upon your child’s temperament, which is why it’s important to customize your choices and be a close observer of your child during and after their media use, so you can note any negative patterns.

Does it allow for some degree of creativity, collaboration or exploration?

Experts agree that active play is better than passive. In other words, the more they can interact with “loose parts” in digital form to create something original, the better. Look for apps that give them the opportunity to build their own scenes or characters, create fashion or art, make their own recipes, or explore imaginary worlds freely. If they are old enough to play games online, search for collaborative games to focus on choices that promote working together over winning.

Is it highly rated and from a reputable source?

One way to tell is to check how many people have downloaded it in the app store. Not to say that a new or underdog program with few downloads is always bad, but there are many app factories out there pumping out volumes of low-quality apps, and one way you can identify them is when they have only 1K or 5K downloads. In addition to questionable quality of content, an app that doesn’t have a lot of downloads might not be well-maintained and can present a security risk to your device.

Be wary, too, of any games or apps that haven’t been reviewed by other parents or specifically for use by children. When searching in your app store, get in the habit of filtering search results by ratings, so that you only see the best options and don’t have to wade through many that are less reputable.

For even more in-depth ratings and information about apps for your children, you can use a free website/app such as Common Sense Media or Entertainment Software Rating Board to find other parents’ and kids’ ratings, as well as screenshots, detailed reviews, and additional information about the types of imagery, language and themes contained in various kinds of media.

Does it feature a lot of advertisements or push users into additional in-app purchases?

A free or low-cost app can end up costing you a lot of money over time. How? Many apps and games feature numerous opportunities for the user to spend real money to unlock levels, purchase special tools or character powers, etc. and often it only takes a simple click. So read parent reviews and monitor the games your kids play on a regular basis (as well as your own bank account) to avoid any unpleasant surprises. Also, be aware that these kinds of apps aren’t necessarily the highest quality choices, so as a rule, steer clear of the ones that hound unsuspecting users to spend money at every turn.

Is it safe and secure?

It’s not always obvious how an app collects and uses personal information of users. For older kids, this becomes an especially important question. The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) is a policy intended to guard kids’ privacy and safety when using the internet, and requires websites and apps to inform users when they gather information from children under the age of 13.

But legal notifications are famous for being difficult to decipher, so it’s best to do a little research, read ratings, and search for parent reviews that discuss how kids interact with others in different apps and sites. Be wary of any platform that allows kids to interact freely with other users, especially adults. And be especially cautious about apps that use GPS to share players’ locations, as this information can be harmful in the wrong hands.

For more recommendations, check out Common Sense Media’s “best of” lists for both apps and websites for kid’s media, with dozens of top choices selected by their staff and by parents, organized by age range.

Learn about technology together

Which changes faster, your child or your technology? Kids’ media has quickly become both an amazing tool for parents and a complex obstacle course for them to cross. The choices we make for (and with) our kids when it comes to how they engage with media will have a real impact on them as they grow up. But thankfully, there’s no shortage of great resources available to learn — and keep learning — what’s good and what’s not so good in the ever-changing world of media technology.